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Arc Digital

The Ship of State as the Ship of Theseus

Will removing Steve Bannon, and the other nationalist planks, get us an entirely new presidency?

Earlier this week, I wrote about the troubles Steve Bannon is undergoing.

Since Trump’s presidency began, and indeed for a long time before that, Bannon has been Trump’s top advisor. His only rival, in terms of raw advisory power, has been the Jared Kushner/Ivanka Trump combo. The character of the inaugural address and both travel bans, to name just a couple examples, have been pure, unadulterated Bannon.

Yet Trump is weary. He is sick of the defeats. Sick of not getting the acclaim he feels he is due. Sick of not being admired. And he’s apparently pinpointed the root of the problem: the entirety of the platform he ran on, embodied by Stephen K. Bannon.

Yesterday, in The New York Post, Trump offered the kind of revisionist narrative typically used to insulate an organization looking to dismiss an individual who previously wielded significant influence. The administration just used this same tactic with regard to Paul Manafort. On that occasion it was Sean Spicer who sought to minimize Manafort’s role; this time it’s Trump himself downplaying Bannon’s importance:

I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late. I had already beaten all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change strategies because I was facing crooked Hillary.

Trump ended with this vote of confidence: “Steve is a good guy, but I told them to straighten it out or I will.”

Recently, per The New York Times, Trump “pushed back” against criticism of Reince Priebus, his chief of staff, by publicly — and hilariously — referring to Priebus as a “nice guy.”

We’re still working on a Trump Praise conversion chart, but it’s unclear whether Bannon being a “good guy” is better or worse than “nice guy.” One thing’s for sure, neither Bannon nor Priebus were being lionized — these are ways for Trump to signal disapproval without officially dragging their names through the mud.

Remember when Jonathan Chait implored his fellow liberals to “earnestly and patriotically support a Trump Republican nomination”? Chait thought Trump would either lose the election, destroy the GOP, or, if neither of those happen, govern as a centrist Republican, far preferrable for liberals than the prospect of Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz running the show.

Spectacularly, Trump didn’t lose. And it remains to be seen whether he destroys the Republican Party — but one thing’s for sure, he didn’t destroy it in the way Chait envisioned. So that only left the third possibility alive: that Trump would govern as a moderate Republican.

Yet when Trump Bannon-ized the Oval in the first two months of his presidency, Chait was savaged from all corners.

Suddenly, things are looking better for Chait’s thesis.

I want you to pay close attention to the case Chait made in that piece from a year ago:

The Trump campaign may feel like an off-the-grid surrealistic nightmare, The Man in the High Castle meets Idiocracy. But something like it has happened before. Specifically, it happened in California. … At the time, the prospect of Schwarzenegger governing America’s largest state struck many of us as just as ghastly as the idea of a Trump presidency seems now. Like Trump, Schwarzenegger came directly to politics from the celebrity world without bothering to inform himself about public policy. He campaigned as a vacuous Man of Action in opposition to the Politicians, breezing by all the specifics as the petty obsessions of his inferiors.

In addition to being grossly unqualified, Schwarzenegger was just gross. He barely concealed his habit of reducing all women to sex objects — and, to a degree exceeding anything Trump has done, put this theory into practice. …

At the beginning of his term, Schwarzenegger more or less fulfilled the worst liberal fears. He gashed a hole in the state budget with a tax cut he couldn’t pay for. He assailed his opponents in the legislature as “girlie men,” proposed a slew of right-wing ballot initiatives, and stated in a meeting that Puerto Rican–American and Cuban-­American officials opposed to him were acting “hot,” i.e., angry, thanks to their “black blood” and “Latino blood.”

But then something funny happened. When his legislative agenda stalled and his ballot measures failed, Schwarzenegger reversed course. The new Schwarzenegger compromised with Democrats on the budget, raising taxes and funding new public infrastructure. He abandoned his opposition to gay marriage, passed redistricting reform, and enacted cutting-edge legislation to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. He proposed sweeping health-care reform based on Mitt Romney’s successful Massachusetts plan. It failed, but when President Obama passed a national health-care law (also based on Romney’s plan), Schwarzenegger defied furious Republicans and eagerly hopped aboard, which enabled his state to roll out its Obamacare exchange smoothly. By the end of his tenure, it was impossible to deny that Schwarzenegger had become a highly effective governor.

The reasons for this bear directly on a hypothetical Trump presidency. Schwarzenegger’s loyalty to Republican doctrine was tissue-thin. He joined the GOP because he vaguely shared its veneration of wealth and success. But his sub-intellectualism, which initially made him so repellent, turned out to be an asset. When conventional Republican governance made him unpopular, he had no incentive to go down with the party ship. The only thing Schwarzenegger really craved was popularity. Running for office as an exercise in ego gratification may not be as good a thing as running as a serious candidate with good ideas, but it’s much better than running as a serious candidate with bad ideas. … The truly dangerous Republicans are the ones who believe their own dialogue.

Declining job approval numbers. Widespread outrage at the various manifestations of nationalism already tried. Embarrassing legislative defeats. All of the above have led us here: Trump is abandoning Bannonism, which until now has been Trumpism by another name.

While campaigning, Trump was never consistently anything, but with that important caveat out of the way, there were some positions Trump took that seemed to be more important to him at a core level than others.

For the longest time, Trump styled himself a non-interventionist, declaring Assad to be better than the alternative even after it had become common knowledge that Assad used chemical weapons on his people. Recently, Trump — who acknowledged his stance had “changed very much” — launched missiles into Syria.

On the campaign trail, Trump called NATO “obsolete.” In a stunning reversal, he now says that NATO is “not obsolete.” This New York Times headline wins the day: “Trump’s Previous View of NATO Is Now Obsolete.” OK, so NATO has changed in some significant way that now makes them crucial as opposed to obsolete, right? Nope: “Nothing has changed at NATO in the last 80 days,” according to Ivo Daalder, a former ambassador to NATO.

Throughout the election, Trump repeatedly called China currency manipulators, promising to designate them as such on his first day in office. Just days ago, in an interview with The Financial Times, Trump called them the “world champions” at manipulating currency. Yet the latest is that he no longer wants to label them currency manipulators. His justification for this reversal? He claims they are not doing it currently and, besides, he needs China’s help to deal with North Korea.

When Bannon was unable to get key congressional figures to bend the knee to the AHCA, Trump signaled that he would be willing to bypass the Freedom Caucus and work with Democrats on Trumpcare 2.0. But doing so will inexorably keep Obamacare in place, which flies in the face of what Trump promised during the campaign.

Trump has recently made overtures to Janet Yellen, the Federal Reserve chair, whom he often criticized during the campaign, and has made nods toward adopting a globalist-friendly foreign policy, or, if not friendly, then at the very least one that is friendlier toward global concerns than his studiously inward-focused inaugural.

So the ostracism of Bannon, the once-unthinkable dismissal of the very heartbeat of Trumpian angst, is the very mechanism being used to usher in Trump’s centrist turn.

The point I’m making by highlighting all of the above is not to berate Trump for abandoning his campaign promises — as far as I’m concerned, Trump flip-flopping on many of his campaign promises would be a net positive — but to point out that it is now abundantly clear there is literally nothing Trump cares about more than approval.

I wrote about this from a theological perspective in The Washington Post awhile back.

Even what we took to be his most deeply-held beliefs are now up for revision, subject to the ever-shifting winds of popular appeal.

I warned, in my Arc piece from earlier this week, that Trump would not be able to dispossess Bannon without incurring a significant electoral risk.

There is a growing sense that what Trump is most looking for now is victories — legislative, military, public opinion, etc. And Bannon’s approach is increasingly seen as too combustible, too explosive, to generate these presidential victories.

One problem with humiliating Bannon is his interests correspond in large part to those of Trump’s base. It would be politically problematic for Trump to make a decisive break with Bannon.

The perfect fix, if this explanation is to be believed, is for Bannon to somewhat curtail his aggressiveness, work toward results that keep Trump’s base happy, but to stay out of larger operations that involve Trump veering toward the center on domestic and foreign policy initiatives.

Trump has three agenda priorities that invite a centrist turn. His abandonment of non-interventionism is going to rally Democrats to his side; his infrastructure goals are the perfect legislative project for him to chart a bipartisan deal; and Trump has hinted that his next crack at healthcare reform will seek to outmanuever the House Freedom Caucus and even involve Democrats if he has to.

These are projects the White House will want Bannon to steer clear of. …

It is entirely possible we’re witnessing a turning away from nationalistic priorities and toward more globalist-friendly ones. But the fact that Trump needs his base for electoral victories — both during the midterms and in 2020 — means he cannot abandon these policies wholesale. And if that’s so, then Bannon will continue to have a place.

Whether Trump’s potential turn away from his populist nationalism and toward a more conventional, even moderate, Republican strategy ends up happening, it’s interesting to explore what will become of Trumpism as previously understood.

Whatever Trump ends up doing, Trumpism is not going away. But say Trump does abandon significant components of what we’ve been calling Trumpism, and say a Bannon-inspired challenger emerges from the right in 2020, which will be the genuinely Trumpist option?

This question reminds me of the Ship of Theseus, a thought experiment designed to explore the issues of identity and change.

In the example, a ship undergoes a gradual replacement of its planks until at one point none of the original planks remain. While the repaired ship is sailing the high seas, the original planks — which, after a while, begin to gather some dust at some shipbuilder’s dockyard — are taken by a ship historian and arranged together in the form of the original ship.

The question is: which of the two ships, the repaired ship or the rebuilt ship, constitutes the original ship?

We might say that the original ship is the one that undergoes gradual plank replacement.

How might someone challenge this? They might say that change is not actually possible — that is: every change registers a new entity. But this isn’t a promising strategy.

One reason for thinking the repaired ship is the original ship is due to the intuitively secure notion that something can undergo growth or change and remain the same object. Most of the cells in our bodies are replaced every few years, but that doesn’t lead us to conclude we’re metaphysically different beings. Similarly, the ship can undergo gradual plank replacement and remain the same ship, ontologically speaking.

But here’s another way taking this first option might come under scrutiny. Someone could explain that while some changes can preserve the original identity, there are other, more substantive changes that eliminate the original entity altogether.

But this requires specifying identity conditions, i.e. definitively declaring what it is that makes something what it is. In the example of the ship, it seems a bit hard to do. Certain identity conditions are easier to specify than others. For example, you might say that if the ship is transformed into a dock, with the ship’s planks becoming a walkway along the water, then there is no more ship. But other identity conditions are harder, as in the example of the Ship of Theseus, because organizationally the object remains the same — in other words, it doesn’t go from being one type of object, a ship, to another type of object, a dock.

So the question now becomes: How much change, while remaining organizationally the same type of object, allows the object to remain what it is? It seems anything you specify — 3 planks, 10 planks, 30 planks — will be arbitrary, leading us to ask why the dividing line was placed there and not elsewhere.

To see the difficulty that this arbitariness brings with it, pick any number of planks taken to be the special number — let’s say that the ship cannot lose 30 of its planks and remain the same ship. Why should it be that a ship that has lost 29 of its planks remain the same but a ship that has lost 31 is an entirely new ship?

Well, what about instead taking the rebuilt ship to be the original ship?

Remember, the rebuilt ship is the ship assembled from the entire set of planks that initially composed the Ship of Theseus.

Why think this is the original ship?

The most obvious response is the strongest one: the rebuilt ship is composed of the very same planks as the original ship.

One challenge for this view comes from the existence of a temporal gap. If, say, Trump banishes Bannon, and Bannonism is gone until it reemerges for the 2020 election, can something undergo a lack of existence only to sprout up again as the same thing?

Going back to the ship example, presumably, the planks were resting in a shipyard for a while before they were reassembled into a ship again. Can one and the same thing suffer a lack of existence in this way? Or does this temporal gap sink (pun!) its ability to remain one and the same object?

I think the Ship of Theseus thought experiment helps us see that when it comes to specifying the identity conditions of Trumpism as an ideology, it’s the ideas, not their bearer, that are most crucial.

Here’s the thing, though: “Trumpism” as a label should follow its bearer, since, if Trump does indeed shift in the way Chait predicted, then “Trumpism,” the label, should capture that which is most central to who Trump is. And if Trump does indeed shift, then it’s clear what he is fundamentally committed to above all else. We would have to reserve “Trumpism” for describing that governing strategy utterly and furiously committed to being praised and being liked.

If Bannon is indeed Kushlashed, and if Trump refashions himself as the second coming of George W. Bush, or even becomes George H. W. Bush 2.0, then Trumpism will be in the hands of whoever takes up the mantle of the Bannon way. Theirs will be the true Trumpism as we’ve known it.

But the deepest form of Trumpism will remain connected to the person rigorously incapable of believing anything deeply.

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